Review: Le Nozze di Figaro

Michael Grandage's Figaro settles into drawing-room farce

Le nozze di Figaro is an Italian opera, composed by a German and adapted from a French play, all of which make it easy to forget the work’s original Spanish setting. But the elaborate Moorish sets for Michael Grandage’s new Glyndebourne production put Spain firmly to the fore, casting aside the 18th century in favour of lusty goings-on in a 1960s country villa, somewhere outside Seville.

Transposing the action of Figaro to Franco’s Spain is not a new idea. Ian Judge’s 2004 treatment for LA Opera also explored this period, identifying the natural parallels between the social and political tensions of the dictator’s boom years and those leading up to the French Revolution. With change just beyond the neatly-trimmed hedges bordering the Almaviva estate, wealth and excess celebrate an uneasy victory in the outmoded rites of the privileged classes.

As the Overture struts to a poised close and Count and Countess pull up in their open-top sports car (a scene-stealing antidote to the many animals on the opera stage in London recently) it becomes clear that music and drama aren’t entirely in sympathy here. While Robin Ticciati and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment offer a determinedly understated reading (the climaxes of the Overture are rarely outdone by the pianissimos), Christopher Oram’s sets are a constant forte in their excess – all Alhambra arches and intricate mosaic tiles. Both however manage to drown out the dramatic intrigue on stage.

Grandage seems determined to reject the sitcom-style operatic comedy currently in vogue, opting instead for a delicate naturalism whose gestures seem barely to reach beyond the orchestra pit. The resulting comedy is hard-won (blunted often by brutally truncated and inexact subtitles), never quite achieving the flow that Mozart’s score demands, and having knock-on impact for some too-heavy recitatives. It’s no disaster, but given this cast, conductor and visual context we could so easily have had so much more.

Characterisation succeeds best in the smaller roles, investing Isabel Leonard’s gorgeously-sung Cherubino with gangling awkwardness, and transforming Don Basilio (Alan Oke) into a prancing poseur. The romance between Andrew Shore’s Bartolo (the dramatic high-point of the evening) and Ann Murray’s Marcellina is also a delight.

Despite the riotous décor and the screaming Pucci-print of her own outfits, Sally Matthews’s Countess achieves the sudden stillness the role requires, shocking us out of the glossy strife of Susanna and Figaro with both “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono” and into the altogether more terminal convulsions of her marriage.

Thanks to the some rather under-projected performances from Vito Priante’s Figaro and Audun Iversen as the Count (the latter all but benign, so smiling is his seduction), greater than usual emphasis falls upon the scheming women – weight that both Matthews and Lydia Teuscher (Susanna) manage to bear. Teuscher’s neat vocal delivery is at its best in the first two acts, relishing the playful intrigue but never quite following through with the darker emotions of Act Four.

There’s a ferocity, a feral energy to Figaro that kicks against the bourgeois conventions of its setting. Here, in the grounds of an English country house, Mozart’s own estate struggles to locate this, settling too easily instead into a gentle drawing-room farce. Having set up a historical context of such resonance and specificity, Grandage fails to follow through and engage with it, leaving his characters unmoored and floating somewhere between their eighteenth century originals and his liberated sixties incarnations.

Le nozze di Figaro is an opera with a special history for Glyndebourne – having opened the festival back in 1934 and received some 500 performances in the intervening years. With 12 years since Graham Vick’s production, all eyes (and ears) were on Grandage and Ticciati to deliver a reading for a new generation. While theirs could still be the production we’ve been waiting for, as yet it isn’t quite.

Michael Grandage's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro will run at the Glyndebourne Festival until Wednesday 22 August 2012. 

 

Susanna (Lydia Teuscher) and Figaro (Vito Priante) in Le nozze di Figaro. Photo: Alastair Muir.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.